One of the things that PhD students across the globe struggle with is productivity and time management. And this struggle is even more profound for PhD students who are also working and have a young family.
I am one of those juggling PhD studies with family, work and other ventures.
So, how should one manage all these conflicting responsibilities without losing their sanity?
The answer lies in effective productivity and time management practices.
In this post, I share a few tips on how to enhance productivity and manage time well that I have learnt along the way.
Enemies of productivity and time management
Before I give tips for time management and productivity, it is important to understand what the barriers are:
1. The need for perfection
If you are like me, then you must have suffered from this illness called perfectionism in any area of your life. In PhD, especially, perfectionism manifests in various ways: wanting to submit a perfect assignment, wanting your proposal to be perfect, wanting your thesis draft to be 100% error-free, etc. Perfectionism holds you back because you keep on doing the same thing over and over again with the hope that the end result will be excellent. As a result, other important tasks suffer and delay in the process. Whereas it is noble to strive for excellence, it is important to understand that a good assignment or proposal is one that has been submitted.
PhD students should therefore give their assignments and writings the best they can give and submit them in good time. This helps them receive feedback on their work in good time, and subsequently they can revise and submit an improved version within a shorter timeframe than if they were striving for perfection.
2. Social media
Social media is all around us, and the platforms keep increasing and becoming more interesting as the years go by. Whereas social media platforms have pros, such as helping us connect with our loved ones and peers, the main downside to them is that they can be such time wasters. The temptation to keep scrolling when you open your Facebook page or when you log in to your Instagram account is too great that it takes such a strong resolve to exit. In most cases, by the time one exits their social media account, two or even three hours are already lost.
Besides social media, email is another great time waster. This is made worse if you have turned on notifications for email and if your email tab is open. It is impossible to avoid the temptation to check an email that has just come into your inbox and to respond to it.
Multi-tasking entails doing more than one thing at the same time. This is an enemy of productivity and time management because your attention will be divided between the various tasks at hand and will end up either doing a shoddy job on them or failing to complete them within their deadlines.
5. Lack of a plan
A big enemy to productivity and time management is the lack of a plan. Some people go to bed not having a clear plan on how their next day will run. They wake up in the morning and still have no agenda for the day. They operate on “whatever comes my way” basis. The lack of a daily plan holds people back because they will not know how to allocate time to important and non-important tasks, and will therefore end up wasting time in the process.
With this understanding of the greatest enemies of productivity and time management, I next discuss some great tips for boosting productivity and managing one’s time in the most effective and efficient manner.
Top 10 productivity and time management tips
We all have competing tasks, some important, some urgent. To boost one’s productivity and manage time well, PhD students should create a list of their priority tasks, on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. The good thing with priorities is that they are fluid, and keep changing by the day, week, or month.
Creating a list of priorities can help PhD students focus on what’s most important at that particular time, and dedicate less time to other tasks that are not important or urgent.
An example: assuming a full-time PhD student struggling with allocating his time between his various tasks such as reading, writing, taking classes, submitting assignments. If the coursework is the first year of the PhD programme, then his priorities during the first year of his programme should be taking classes, and working on assignments. This does not mean that he will not read papers or write his proposal; he will do them but will not dedicate much time to those tasks in the first year because they are not the most important or urgent tasks. Come second year, the student will now have completed his coursework and can now re-focus his effort and time to proposal writing, which would entail reading many papers and writing out his proposal drafts until he submits and fends his proposal. Come third year, and the focus for the student would now be data collection, analysis and report writing. This example is a clear indication of the fluidity of priorities and the need to focus on what’s important and urgent in any particular season of the PhD journey.
The same applies to PhD students with other competing interests as well such as work and family. They need to know when they should focus on their work, when to focus on their families and when to focus on their studies. This clarity of priorities makes all the conflicting responsibilities a little bit easier to manage.
2. Always start your day right
There is power in completing the most important task first. The task you do first when you wake up should be one that is most important and that brings you the highest value, and sets the right pace for the rest of your day. If you start your day by checking and responding to emails, you are in essence dedicating your most precious time to other people’s agenda, rather than your own. The most important, highest value task will vary by individuals and by the season the individual is in.
For PhD students working on their proposals, the most important and highest value task could be reading journal papers or writing our portions of the proposal. Starting the day with these tasks will not only give the student a sense of accomplishment but it will also clear the way for the student and makes the remaining tasks easier to do.
Tackling the most important, highest value task first thing in the morning should be done consistently until it becomes a habit.
3. Go deep
Not only is it important to tackle the most important, highest value task first thing in the morning, it is equally important to work deep.
In the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, he defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits” (p.3).
The concept of working deep is highly applicable to PhD studies, where students are expected to make contributions to the body of knowledge. But how does a student make original intellectual contributions when he is working with social media on and in the midst of distractions? This is impossible.
Going deep means locking yourself in a room away from other people, and turning off technological distractions such as mobile phones and just focusing on your work for a given amount of time; this can be as short as 1 hour or as long as an individual’s brain can take it.
Going deep enables a PhD student to have laser focus on the task at hand, be it reading papers or writing bits of a thesis.
4. Set aggressive deadlines for yourself
In my PhD program, it is the norm for students to be given a month to complete coursework assignments. What I have observed is that majority of the students are adrenaline junkies and wait until the very last minute to submit their assignments. An assignment that can be completed in two weeks at most ends up taking a whole month.
What I have found to be useful is to set for myself aggressive deadlines and work with those deadlines. So for a one-month assignment, I set a week or at most two weeks’ deadline to research on it, work on it and upload it on our platform. There is nothing as liberating as completing tasks way ahead of their deadlines. You not only set your mind free from always reminding you subconsciously about the pending assignment but you also free your time to do other important things.
Setting yourself aggressive deadlines forces you to be laser-focused on those tasks and to make better use of your time than more lenient deadlines.
Aggressive deadlines can also be applied to other tasks such as proposal writing, whose timeframe provided by the institution may be as long as one or two years. Be intentional to cut down this time by half or even more, then set to work on the proposal as if your life depends on (and indeed it does). Same case for data collection, writing journal papers, and writing the thesis itself, among other tasks that seem like a mountain for most PhD students.
Setting aggressive deadlines is one of the reasons why some students take 3 years to complete their PhDs while their classmates end up taking even 5 years to complete the same program, yet they started on the same day.
5. Create a to-do list
Keeping your to-do tasks in your head makes one prone to forget some important and not-so important tasks. Your mind will also feel congested with pending tasks.
Free your mind! Jot it all down.
You can use the good old pen and paper method to create your to-do list or you can go the digital way. It does not matter as long as you have one.
A to-do list creates a visual picture of what you are supposed to do each month, week, and day. It’s therefore important to have a to-do list for the month, then break it down into weekly to-do lists and further into daily to-do lists.
This way, your tasks become clearer and less mind boggling.
6. Schedule your tasks
It is one thing to create a to-do list but another thing all together to schedule those tasks.
Use a calendar to schedule your tasks.
It is easy to work on something that has been scheduled than one that does not appear in the calendar.
Use your daily to-do lists to schedule the tasks according to their importance. When you go to bed each night, be clear on what you will do the next day and what time you will do them.
This saves one time that is spent in trying to find what you will do at any particular time.
It will also prevent you from finding and doing less important tasks throughout the day.
7. Use themes to schedule tasks
One strategy that works for some people is the use of themes to compartmentalise tasks and group similar tasks together.
One can use daily themes or time themes.
For daily themes, you can allocate each day of the week for specific tasks e.g. Mondays for reading journal papers only, Tuesdays for writing, Wednesdays for working on references, Thursdays for short courses etc.
For time themes, you can allocate times of the day for specific tasks e.g early mornings for reading, mid-mornings for writing, after lunch for data analysis, early evenings for communication etc.
This strategy reduces distractions and helps one to stay focused on one task on any given day and at any given time.
8. Use dead time to your advantage
Everyone has dead time, which is the time that is lost during the day.
Dead time can be the time we use when we take a shower, when we commute to and from work/school, when we take meals by ourselves etc.
One can use dead time to be more productive by engaging in activities that enhance our productivity.
For instance, rather than scrolling the social media while taking lunch, one can decide to listen to a podcast or an audiobook, practice public speaking, do some stretching exercises etc.
One can also use shower time to meditate, plan for the next day or unwind so as to rejuvenate oneself.
You can also use commute time to read a book (if not driving) or to listen to a motivational speech or audiobook etc.
Dead time is often underestimated but those few minutes each day can add up to hours, days and weeks as the days go by.
9. Consistency is key
You can become better at anything by doing it repeatedly every day.
Same applies to PhD. Many PhD students struggle especially with writing. But you can only become a good writer if you write something every single day.
The more you write, the better you become at it, and the less time it will take you to write in future. This is true for other tasks as well.
PhD students should therefore get in the habit of creating a daily routine for tasks such as reading and writing.
An example that is too common among students is putting off some tasks such as referencing until the last couple of months to dissertation defense. This is a huge mistake and ends up being time-consuming and prone to errors when done this way. It is recommended that referencing (inserting in-text citations and building the reference list) should be done regularly each time a source is read and referenced.
A little each day goes a long way!
10. Take breaks
Your mind, body and soul need breaks throughout the day to rejuvenate.
After every 90-120 minutes, take a short good break.
There are breaks that will boost your productivity and breaks that will dampen it. Learn the difference.
Examples of a good break include: drinking water, eating a fruit, walking around, stretching a bit, taking a power nap etc. These are breaks that build you.
An example of a bad break includes surfing the internet aimlessly, logging into your social media accounts etc. These are breaks that will waste your time and further drain you.
A good break should re-energise you, reset your mind and make you more or as productive as you were before.
Don’t push your body and brain without giving them time to recover; they will not serve you as efficiently as you would like.
Schedule your breaks regularly throughout the day and you will be amazed at how much you will be able to accomplish each day.
It is said that time is a great equaliser; we all have 24 hours in a day.
The difference between successful and unsuccessful people lies mostly in how they utilise their 24 hours.
On the same note, the difference between a productive and an unproductive PhD student is how they use each second, each minute and each hour of their day. If you are a PhD student, implement the strategies and systems highlighted above and you will find your journey to be a bit more manageable.